Happiness is bullshit

Happiness is not joy. Under capitalism, happiness is a duty and unhappiness is a disorder. Companies increasingly sell happy experiences instead of products: happiness is a relaxing vacation on the beach, an intense night at the bar, a satisfying drink on a hot day, or contented retirement. As workers, we are expected to find happiness in our job. As consumers, we are encouraged to become connoisseurs and customizers, with an ever-more refined sense of what makes us happy. We are encouraged to base our lives on this search for happiness and its promises of pleasure, bliss, fulfillment, exhilaration, or arousal, depending on our tastes and proclivities (and our budget).

The search for happiness doesn’t just come through markets. We are also sold the rejection of upward mobility and consumerism as another form of placid containment: maybe you realize that what really makes you happy is a life in a small town where everyone knows your name, or a humble nuclear family, or kinky polyamory, or travel, or witty banter, or cooking fancy food, or awesome dance parties. The point is not that these activities are wrong or bad. But the dominant order empties them of their transformative potential, inviting us to shape our lives in thrall to happiness.

As feminist theorist Sara Ahmed writes,

to be conditioned by happiness is to like your condition […] consensus is produced through sharing happy objects, creating a blanket whose warmth covers over the potential of the body to be affected otherwise.[1]

Cups10As a warm blanket, the search for happiness closes off other possibilities, other textures, other feelings. Ahmed shows how the promise of happiness can be treacherous, encouraging us to ignore or turn away from suffering—our own or others’—if it threatens happiness. Happy promises have a gendered and racialized logic: this world is designed to secure white male happiness in particular, while policing the feelings of women, genderqueer and trans folks, and people of color. As Nishnaabe scholar and artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson writes,

I am repeatedly told that I cannot be angry if I want transformative change—that the expression of anger and rage as emotions are wrong, misguided, and counter-productive to the movement. The underlying message in such statements is that we, as Indigenous and Black peoples, are not allowed to express a full range of human emotions. We are encouraged to suppress responses that are not deemed palatable or respectable to settler society. But the correct emotional response to violence targeting our families is rage.[2]

Imperatives to be happy, nice, or kind can sustain violence and force out antagonism. If we are not happy—if we are depressed, anxious, addicted, or “crazy”—we are tasked with fixing ourselves, or at least with managing our symptoms. Unhappiness, rage, resentment, and grief are turned into individual disorders, to be dealt with through pharmaceuticals, self-help, therapy, and other atomizing responses. The warm blanket of happiness is an anesthetic. Those who reject happy promises are also subject to control and coercion: being perceived as a threat to the happiness of others—especially those who have shaped their lives around happy promises—can be lethal.

The point is not that happiness is always bad, or that being happy means being complicit with oppression. Happiness can also be subversive and dangerous, as part of a process through which one becomes more alive and capable. But when happiness becomes something to be gripped or chased after as the meaning of life, it tends to lose its transformative potential.

If our own desires sometimes keep us stuck in toxic habits, the challenge is not to reveal a truth, as if we’ve all been duped. Nor is it about rejecting happiness in favor of duty or self-sacrifice. Because capitalism shapes our very aspirations and moods, resisting bullshit happiness means participating more fully in the shape of our own desires. This entails refusing to avoid pain, and instead struggling amidst and through it. For instance, making space for collective feelings of rage, grief, or loneliness can be deeply transformative, but not happy.[3] Undoing our own subjection might be subtle and tender, or it might be a violent act of refusal. Sometimes these shifts are barely perceptible and take place over decades, and sometimes they are dramatic and world-shaking.

One name for this process is joy. This is not the conventional meaning of joy, as a pseudo-religious synonym for bliss, but a concept cribbed from the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza and contemporary affect theory.[4] From this perspective, joy isn’t an emotion at all, but a process that moves us away from conditioned habits, reactions, and emotions. It is the thinking-feeling that arises from becoming capable of more, and often this entails feeling many emotions at once. Joy can be devastating, painful, and dangerous. Whereas happiness is used as a stifling anesthetic, joy is the growth of a sense that things are different, that we are different, that a more capable “we” is forming that didn’t exist before.

The point is not to chase after joy instead of happiness, but to tune into and transform the here-and-now of our own situations. Joy promises nothing, and this is what makes it powerful.

This is based on an excerpt from Joyful Militancy: Building Resistance in Toxic Times, by carla bergman and Nick Montgomery, published by AK Press.

[1] Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 192.

[2] Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, “Indict the System: Indigenous & Black Connected Resistance,” LeanneSimpson.ca, http://leannesimpson.ca/indict-the-system-indigenous-black-connected-resistance/

[3] For more on this, see Cindy Milstein, ed, Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief (Oakland: AK Press, 2017).

[4] This interpretation of Spinoza’s concept of joy comes from many sources, but one of the most helpful is Mary Zournazi’s interview with the affect theorist Brian Massumi, in which he distinguishes joy from happiness. See Mary Zournazi, “Navigating Movements: A Conversation with Brian Massumi,” in Hope: New Philosophies for Change, by Mary Zournazi (New York: Routledge, 2002), 241-242.